FCC proposes simplified copper retirement, pole access regime

utility poles
Copper retirement has been a contentious issue for ILECs, which want to shut down legacy services that have low usage and CLECs that use copper to deliver lower-speed Ethernet services.

The FCC has put forth proposals to reform the pole attachment process and copper retirement, two issues it said create regulatory barriers to advancing the growth of wireline broadband services.

During its April meeting, the commission said that its reforms will help accelerate deployment of next-generation networks and services by removing barriers to infrastructure investment at the federal, state and local level.

It has asked for comment on using the FCC’s preemption authority to prohibit the enforcement of state and local laws that would pose barriers to broadband deployment, including input on when service providers have to obtain FCC permission to alter or discontinue a service.

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Chairman Pai, Commissioner O’Rielly approved the measure, while Commissioner Mignon Clyburn concurred.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement approving the measure that without a regulatory framework that enables service providers to build a business case, emerging service providers like Rocket Fiber, RG Fiber and Southern Light wouldn't be able to exist.

Detroit-based Rocket Fiber is delivering 1 Gbps services to multi-dwelling units, while Southern Light, which is being purchased by Uniti, has found a sizeable niche selling fiber services to wireless operators and government agencies along the Gulf Coast.

“Without rules that keep costs low and encourage deployment, the RG Fibers and Southern Lights and Rocket Fibers won’t get off the ground—and consumers will never benefit from the competition they’re trying to bring to the broadband marketplace,” Pai said.

Simplifying pole access

While service providers will continue to trench fiber, being able to access utility poles in a city or town is a method to leverage existing infrastructure to potentially speed up a network deployment. 

The FCC has proposed what it says is a streamlined timeframe for gaining access to utility poles by using elements of municipal “one-touch, make-ready” (OTMR) rules. Two of the key issues that the proposal seeks to address are attachment fees and attachment timelines.

Specifically, the FCC proposed to reduce charges paid by attachers to utilities for work done to make a pole ready for new attachments while ensuring that pole attachers are not charged multiple times for certain capital costs. The FCC proposed adopting a formula for computing the maximum pole attachment rate for incumbent local exchange carriers.

By establishing a shot clock for pole attachment complaints, attachers would also be able to get a more timely answer from the FCC if they run into issues. Additionally, they would adopt rules that would allow for all local carriers (local exchange carriers, or LECs) to demand reciprocal access on other LEC-owned poles.

“When you make it easier and cheaper to build high-speed networks, companies are more likely to build those networks,” Pai said. “Unreasonably high costs and excessive delays to access poles and costly and cumbersome permitting processes can make it extremely difficult to deploy infrastructure.” 

Clyburn agreed with her fellow commissioners on the principle of getting rid of unnecessary roadblocks to getting broadband networks in place.

“The time is ripe for opening up pole attachment reform, for taking a look at how we can work with local governments to remove barriers to deployment, and for generally evaluating how we can further streamline processes for rolling out new services,” Clyburn said.  

However, Clyburn added that the FCC needs to make sure that it has an ongoing dialog with local communities on pole attachment rules.

“What concerns me, however, is the strong talk surrounding preemption, that takes place even before we lay out a clear path to work with communities through other processes such as the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee’s development of model codes,” Clyburn said. “The importance of community engagement was reiterated during my visit earlier this week to the Digital Southwest summit in Mesa, Arizona, and it is with this backdrop that I look forward to reviewing the full record on all of these issues.”

One potential benefactor of the pole attachment reform issue is Google Fiber. The service provider called upon city leaders in two cities—Louisville, Kentucky, and Nashville, Tennessee—to adopt the simplified pole attachment process one touch make ready.

Google Fiber claimed that OTMR is designed to streamline a city's utility pole attachment process. The traditional “make ready” rules required Google Fiber to notify the Nashville Electric Service (NES) of the need to make space for its cables, which would require NES to contact AT&T and Comcast to execute the actual work.

AT&T sued the city of Louisville, Kentucky, last February, arguing that the city does not have the right to dictate how its utility poles can be used.

Accelerating copper, legacy service retirement

Copper retirement has been a contentious issue for ILECs, which want to shut down legacy services that have low usage and CLECs that use copper to deliver lower-speed Ethernet services. Meanwhile, older consumers still rely on traditional copper-based POTS voice service.

Under the FCC’s plan, the regulator wants to achieve a few main goals: Easing the transition to IP networks, streamlining network notification rules, eliminating rules that require service providers to dedicate capital to maintain TDM equipment and speeding up the legacy service discontinuance process.

A number of telcos, including Verizon, have been working to retire more copper in its network. Over the past year it has continued to retire copper in its Northeast market, telling affected consumers that its traditional phone line will run without any interruption.

Meanwhile, various CLECs like TelePacific have asked the FCC to extend the copper retirement process. The CLEC said it is concerned that an ILEC's copper loop retirement could potentially cause it from having to discontinue provisioning service to a community or part of a community. However, Verizon and AT&T said that CLECs have plenty of time to respond copper retirement notices.

As part of its own plea to streamline the copper retirement process, Verizon asked the FCC in a filing (PDF) to clarify its copper retirement notification requirements by confirming that telcos can provide interconnection partners and local public utility commissions a paper copy of the notice and a hyperlink to a searchable online list of addresses or locations where copper is to be retired in lieu of a paper copy of the address list.

Clyburn said that any transition needs to take into consideration the affect it could have on consumers. She cited a 2016 RAND study that found that nearly 20% “of Americans view landline telephone service as the most important communications service.” RAND said this group includes “the more vulnerable members of society.”

“At the end of the day, these transitions are either about replacing electronics on either end of a wire, or replacing that wire with fiber or other technologies,” Clyburn said. “But those infrastructure changes promise to fundamentally alter the very nature of the service offered to consumers. This is exactly why we must ensure that consumers’ concerns and needs are given credence during this process of retiring copper or discontinuing legacy services.”